Egg yolk color: the great homesteader status symbol!
It doesn’t matter if you have a herd of perfectly-groomed sheep, prize-winning tomatoes, a beautiful milk cow, or a pantry full of home-rendered lard, nope. The real measure of a homesteader is the color of their chickens’ egg yolks. At least that’s what I thought when I first started dreaming about raising chickens.
When we got our chickens last spring, I was sooo excited to have eggs with bright, blazing-like-the-sun-orange yolks. I was determined to give our hens the best life possible, and feed them only the highest quality food. Before our little chickies even arrived I was researching food options, considering the viability of 100% free-ranging, and determining what it would take to make my own blend of organic feed, based on the things I could source locally or grow myself. I learned a lot about chicken nutrition- as any chicken keeper probably should.
And then the chicks arrived. We raised them from day-old babies, introduced them to the big world outside and watched them grow and turn into adult laying hens (complete with full blown personalities and crazy-chicken antics!).
Every day we observe their behavior, which seems to change with the seasons and even the time of day. We watch them practically melt into the ground with relaxation during a dust bath, run around soaking wet in a rainstorm, and see them basking in the sunshine on a warm summer’s day. We watch them pick at the kale and cabbage plants in the garden, and slurp down worms like spaghetti noodles. We know their personalities- who gets along and who doesn’t, who the best hunters are, who needs extra attention, and who prefers to be left alone. We see them fly out of the coop with excitement every morning, ready to hunt and explore, and we get to say goodnight to them at the end of every day.
Much too often I see articles written by uninformed chicken-keepers or renegade real-foodies about the color of egg yolks, declaring that pale yolks come from sick chickens, or that the health of a bird is related to yolk color- and frankly that’s wrong. It’s not black and white. The ONLY way to know if your eggs came from healthy, happy chickens is to know the farm or the farmer that raised them.
There are many factors that determine the health of a chicken, which is not something you can fully appreciate until you’ve raised them yourself. Egg yolk color alone is not an indication of chicken health.
I think there are actually two different issues here: egg yolk color as it relates to the health of the hen, and egg yolk color as it relates to the nutrition content it provides to us. Separate issues, but equally important.
Egg Yolk Color and Chicken Health
There is one main factor that determines the color of an egg yolk: the amount of certain pigmented compounds in a hen’s diet. Egg yolk color comes from a family of compounds called xanthophylls, which are found in a lot of green plants and in higher amounts in things like marigold petals, corn, red peppers, saffron, alfalfa, and many others. There are a few other contributing factors, like intestinal health influencing absorption of these compounds, but they seem to play a very small role, and are largely unstudied.
On one hand you could argue that chickens who are laying eggs with darker yolks can do so because they have more available nutrients (in the form of pigments) to put into them, and a hen with a surplus of nutrients is a healthier hen. While this is true, it is only one small group of nutrients that are responsible for the egg color. A small piece of a large pie.
But… but… in order to get those high amounts of xanthophylls they have to be eating greens, so they have to be out on pasture, so they are healthy chickens. Right?
Not so fast! That does make sense in theory, but it is trumped by the fact that egg yolk color is something that is easily manipulated. This is supported by the hundreds of research papers testing the different ways to influence egg yolk color, and the many companies who sell colorant additives for feed for this purpose- yes, even organic ones!
Just because a yolk is deep orange, doesn’t mean it came from a healthy hen, a pasture-raised hen, or a hen that even ate any bugs or grass at all.
Egg Yolk Color and Nutrient Content
The xanthophylls that are responsible for yolk color are members of the carotenoid family- many of which have vitamin A activity and antioxidants… so, yes we want to have high levels of those in our eggs! Egg yolks provide essential nutrients for our health.
There are two groups of yolk colorants- yellow and red. The naturally occurring colorants that provide the yellow hues are usually extracted from marigolds, alfalfa or corn, and they provide nutrients to the hen that transfer to the egg, and then benefit us. Unfortunately, these colorants don’t provide the deeper orange and red tones that people looking for really dark yolks usually desire. These natural pigments also degrade fast when feed is stored, and don’t always supply consistent and reliable egg yolk coloration. The deep orange and red colorants most commonly used in chicken feed (in the U.S. and in other countries) to turn yolks deep orange can provide some nutrients, depending on the substance used. Personally, I find it more concerning that almost all of the studies I read on canthaxanthin and β-apo-8-ester (two major players in the deep-orange yolk game) have more information on the “safety levels” and “risk” associated with their use, than any potential health benefits or pro-vitamin A activity.
I’m not condoning the use of colorants in feed to color egg yolks. If egg production is your business, then I think it’s smart to give the consumer what they want. But let’s call it what it is and not fool ourselves. After all, I do want a dark orange yolk, but I want it to reflect the life and the health of the chicken that laid it.
Just because the yolk is darker and deeper in color, doesn’t mean that it was achieved naturally, and it doesn’t always mean that the nutrient content is significantly higher.
How do I Find Quality Eggs with High Nutrient Content from Healthy, Happy Chickens?
ASK! Find a local chicken farmer who claims to raise pastured hens, and then do your homework- talk to them, look at their social media, ask specific questions about the feed they use. If they’re worth their salt, they will be able to tell you immediately what brand of feed they use, or what ingredients it contains. If they act annoyed at your question or defensive, find a different farmer. Or, take note of what brands are available at your supermarket and research the companies online.
I know that “quality” eggs and “good” eggs are subjective terms. It’s really up to you to know what qualities you want your eggs to have. Do they have to be organic? Just non-GMO? Corn-free? Soy-free? Are you okay with eggs from hens that are kept in small moveable pens? Yes, they get sunshine and green grass, but they aren’t “free.” Are you willing to eat eggs from commercially-raised chickens kept in small pens, who never see the light of day? Decide what quality of eggs you want, and know what you’re supporting with your food dollars.
Egg yolk color really is the great corroborator. If the color of the yolks makes sense in relation to how and where the chickens were claimed to have been raised- great! If it doesn’t add up, then you might want to reconsider your supplier.
Health is More Than Just Diet
Just like our own health is dependent on many factors, including diet and lifestyle, so is a chicken’s.
Egg yolk color definitely can be an indicator of the way a chicken was raised, and furthermore their health. While the title of this post might be a little over-dramatic, I don’t mean to imply that yolk color doesn’t matter at all, but rather, that is isn’t everything, and it isn’t the be all, end all of chicken health.
We’ve found a wonderful happy-medium with our hens. And we are so grateful that we’re in a position to do this. In the warm months they free-range all day, from sun up to sun down, with 20-acres available to them. They only venture out onto 2-3 acres, and I like that they stick close to home because it helps keep them safer. There are hundreds of varieties of green plants available to them at all times, along with a plethora of bugs and worms- and they pick and choose what they want to eat. In the afternoon they get a small ration of organic grain. I can tell that they get stressed if I wait too long to give it to them, and they become bossy and mean to each other.
Yep, chickens get hangry too! And I don’t want that.
I like that the hens stay close to home and don’t feel pressure to venture far out to meet their nutrition needs. I love that they get to rest in the afternoon on hot summer days, and lounge in the shade dust bathing. They really have the best of all worlds. Their egg yolks aren’t blaze-orange-red, no… but they are deep dark yellow. I’ve thought about feeding them more foods with high xanthophylls for the purpose of darkening the yolks… but why? The eggs from our chickens are already so incredible: rich and full of flavor. Each one is like gold!
I’d rather have egg with dark yellow yolks from hens that are healthy and definitely happy!
2004. Enrichment of Eggs with Lutein. Poultry Science 83:1709–1712
2000. Dietary carotenoids and egg yolk coloration—A review. Arch. Geflugelkd. 64:45–54
2012. Opinion of the Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition on the use of canthaxanthin in feedingstuffs for salmon and trout, laying hens, and other poultry. EUROPEAN COMMISSION HEALTH & CONSUMER PROTECTION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL
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